Salsa macha verde
Salsa macha verde Credit: Rishi Manoj Kumar

Salsa macha, you might know, is the nutty, crunchy, toasty Mexican chili oil that has mysterious transformative powers, able to turn an average plate of food into something extraordinary, and an average cook into one to be reckoned with.

If there’s one thing the pandemic hasn’t slowed down it’s my chronic Condiment Acquisition Disorder (CAD). Right now my dangerously overcrowded fridge is home to several kinds of hometown salsas macha, like La Lupita Salsa Diabla, from venerable Archer Heights masa makers La Guadalupana (available at your friendly neighborhood Cermak Produce). There are also two unlabeled Ball jars containing sesame and peanut-morita salsas macha from Albany Park’s dear departed Huaraches Dona Chio (sorry, the Edgewater location doesn’t stock them). And I have a jar of the high-octane housemade stuff from Cremeria la Ordena. One evening last December I was confronted with a ceviche tostada draped with the killer arbol-ancho-sesame-pepita salsa macha that Jonathan Zaragoza was serving at El Oso last year. Each one of these specimens is completely different from the other in terms of taste, texture, and aroma, but all are equal in their sorcery.

Yet compared to the plethora of prepared salsa varieties available on supermercado shelves, salsa macha is a rarity here. That should and could be changing thanks in part to Rishi Manoj Kumar, chef de cuisine at Bar Sotano, who launched a line of three jarred salsas macha as a side hustle when traffic jammed at the River North agave bar last November.

When Kumar was a kid growing up in Singapore, his parents regularly celebrated his birthday and good grades by taking him to Margarita’s, one of the island’s very few serious Mexican restaurants. That’s where he fell in love with Mexican food, but he didn’t start cooking it until it was time to embark on his internship at the end of his studies at the Singapore branch of the Culinary Institute of America. He turned down the chance to work at Eleven Madison Park and instead accepted a position at Frontera Grill because he heard it was a hands-on, nurturing environment, and he wouldn’t just get shoved off to a corner to pluck herbs.

He started as a line cook at Topolobampo and never left, working his way up to sous chef before taking over private events, and eventually the kitchen at Bayless’s new agave bar, which stayed open though patio season, then pivoted to charity work distributing paellas to industry folks and community kitchens. And now it’s back in the 25 percent capacity dine-in game.

Salsas macha by Chef Rishi
Salsas macha by Chef RishiCredit: Rishi Manoj Kumar

Kumar has been studying salsas macha for all seven years, both in the restaurants and in his travels around Mexico. “It’s what all the top chefs in Mexico like to use right now,” he says. “In my case I like to refer it back to Asian cooking. It’s the sambal of Mexican cuisine. You can just throw it in, give a quick sauté to your vegetables, and man, it just elevates your whole meal to a more restaurant kind of complexity.”

His three varieties riff on the common salsa macha template. “There’s always a dried chile, always a nut or a seed that ties it together, always a good olive oil, garlic, and dried herbs.”

If asked, Kumar is prepared with very specific recommendations for each, which underscore their versatility. The salsa verde (pictured at the top) has a thick vivid-green, pesto-like consistency from serrano, crushed hazelnuts, and cilantro. It’s the spiciest of the three. He likes it tossed with pasta and sour cream, or smeared on grilled or seared fish. The morita-peanut-sesame jar compares closest to the traditional Veracruz style, at home on tacos and tostadas—but Kumar likes it with roasted carrots and yogurt.

The deeply smoky Oaxacan pasilla and pepita variety is for the meat and potato eaters. This is what you want over grilled skirt steak, but at Bar Sotano Kumar uses it to dress seared green beans with white bean puree. “I could tell you tons of ways to use it but we’d never end this conversation,” says Kumar, who was flooded with orders after his first Instagram post.  At $14 a jar, he’ll take orders via Instagram, and deliver or ship, but he also just launched online ordering.

I did it the hard way, procuring mine direct from Kumar under cover of a cold, darkening River North alley last week. I sped them home where I twisted them all open and drizzled spoonfuls of each over Pittsburgh-rare slices of leftover grilled sirloin, cackling between bites like a deranged incurable CAD. Watch for me on the 12th season of Hoarders.  v